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Major ideas of Enlightenment: Kant, Rousseau: Part I

Major ideas of Enlightenment: Kant, Rousseau: Part I

What is Enlightenment

  • It was intellectual, philosophical, cultural and social movement.
  • It spread throughout Europe (mainly Western Europe) during the 17th and 18th century. This period is called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason.
  • It represented a huge departure from the Middle Ages of Europe.
  • It was characterised by following fundamental features:
    • Reason/ Rationalism
      • There was glorification of human reason.
      • There was conviction that with the power of reason, humans could arrive at truth, discover natural laws regulating existence, improve the world and lead to human progress.
      • Enlightenment focused on man’s ability to reason, to look past the traditions and conventions that had dominated Europe in the past, and to make decisions for himself.
    • Naturalism/ Natural law
      • It presented scientific approach as a substitute for supernatural theological thoughts.
      • It was believed that natural laws (like Newton’s discovery) could be discovered which governs the universe.
      • The universe was considered as a giant machine whose functioning had been impeded because the machinery was not properly understood and once the basic laws that govern it is understood, this machine would operate properly.
    • Optimism of human progress
      • Enlightenment was based on the belief that steady betterment and ultimate perfecting of mankind is possible through increasing use of reason and broadening the knowledge of natural laws.
    • Humanism
      • It revolves around human-
        • human well being and welfare, human liberty, human dignity etc.
      • It rejects any idea or institution which restrains human. It may be society, church, absolutist monarchy etc.
      • Enlightenment challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, such as the Catholic Church.
    • Individualism
      • It emphasized the importance of the individual and his inborn rights.
    • Relativism
      • It was the concept that different cultures, beliefs, ideas, and value systems had equal merit.
  • Enlightenment ideas were reformative:
    • Reform in economy (for e.g. ideas of Adam Smith)
    • Reform in law (for e.g. ideas of Jeremy Bentham)
    • Reform in Ethics (for e.g. ideas of Emmanuel Kant)
    • Reform in religion (for e.g. ideas of Voltaire)
    • Reform in society (for e.g. ideas of Rousseau) and so on.
  • During this age, there was struggle between ideas like struggle between:
    • liberty & despotism,
    • Protestantism & Catholicism,
    • authority & reason.

Background/ Roots of Enlightenment

  • The millennium of the Middle Ages had been marked by unwavering religious devotion and unfathomable cruelty.
  • Rarely before or after did the Church have as much power as it did during those thousand years of the Middle Ages.
  • With the Holy Roman Empire as a foundation, missions such as the Crusades were conducted in part to find and persecute heretics. Such harsh injustices would eventually offend and scare Europeans into change.
  • Science was frequently regarded as heresy, and those who tried to explain miracles and other matters of faith faced harsh punishment.
  • Society was highly hierarchical, with serfdom a widespread practice.
  • There were no mandates regarding personal liberties or rights, and many Europeans feared religion—either at the hands of an unmerciful God or at the hands of the sometimes brutal Church itself.
  • Ideas of British Philosopher John Locke is considered as immediate background provider to the Enlightenment. (His ideas will be discussed in detail later on)
  • The Scientific Revolution:
    • The Enlightenment was the product of a vast set of cultural and intellectual changes in Europe during the 16th and 17th century.
    • One of the most important of these changes was the Scientific Revolution.
    • The Scientific Revolution opened a path for independent thought, and the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics, politics, economics, philosophy, and medicine were drastically updated and expanded.
    • The amount of new knowledge that emerged was staggering. Just as important was the enthusiasm with which people approached the Enlightenment: intellectual salons popped up in France, philosophical discussions were held, and the increasingly literate population read books and passed them around feverishly.
    • During the Scientific Revolution,
      • European thinkers tore down the flawed set of “scientific” beliefs established by the ancients and maintained by the Church.
      • To replace this flawed knowledge, scientists sought to discover and convey the true laws governing the phenomena they observed in nature.
      • Ironically, even the Church initially encouraged scientific investigations, out of the belief that studying the world was a form of piety and constituted an admiration of God’s work.
    • Galileo and Kepler
      • The Church’s benevolent stance toward science changed abruptly when astronomers such as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) started questioning the old beliefs.
      • Galileo especially encountered significant resistance from the Church for his support of the theories of Polish astronomer Copernicus, who had stated that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system—not vice versa, as Church teaching had always maintained.
    • Bacon and Descartes
      • Galileo had long said that observation was a necessary element of the scientific method—a point that Francis Bacon (1561–1626) solidified with his inductive method which stresses observation and reasoning as the means for coming to general conclusions.
      • Rene Descartes (1596–1650) talents ran the gamut from mathematics to philosophy.
        • He came to the philosophical conclusion “I think, therefore I am”—asserting that, if nothing else, he was at least a thinking being.
        • Descartes’ deductive approach to philosophy, using math and logic, stressed a “clear and distinct foundation for thought”.
    • Newton (1642–1727)
      • Newton had also prepared ground for Enlightenment through his findings of natural laws.
      • He revealed a number of natural laws that had previously been credited to divine forces.
      • He worked in areas of mathematics, physics (for e.g. gravity), optics etc.
  • Exploration and Imperialism
    • Change was taking place in Europe as the result of exploration and the extension of overseas empires in the Americas, Africa and Asia.
    • European explorers used new transportation technologies to explore new areas.
    • As these explorers returned from across the world with stories of peoples and cultures never previously known, Europeans were introduced to drastically different lifestyles and beliefs.
    • The worldlier perspective provided Enlightenment-era thinkers with the inspiration and impetus for change.
  • The Declining Influence of the Church
    • Yet another major change in the lives of Europeans prior to the Enlightenment was the weakening of adherence to traditional religious authority.
    • The questioning of religion itself can largely be traced to the tensions created by the Protestant Reformation, which split the Catholic Church and opened new territory for theological debate.
    • As other seventeenth century thinkers similarly questioned the authority of organized religion, it became much more common in European intellectual circles to put the concepts of religious belief to question.
    • This combined with the new discoveries of the Scientific Revolution threatened the supremacy of Church doctrine considerably.
    • Moreover, these advances in thought coincided with anti-church and government sentiment that was already growing among European commoners.
      • The Catholic Church at the time was famously corrupt, and it often ruled using intimidation, fear, and false knowledge and was violently intolerant toward dissenters and heretics.
      • Subsequently, when Enlightenment philosophers came along praising liberty and self-empowerment, people found willing ears.
  • Anti-War Sentiments
    • Another major change in Europe prior to the Enlightenment was an increased questioning of the justness of absolute monarchy.
    • Developments like wars caused the authority of European divine right—the idea that monarchs were infallible because their titles were granted by God—to weaken.
    • The atrocities that the German public endured in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) inspired leading European thinkers and writers to decry war as an institution.
    • Czech reformer John Comenius (1592–1670):
      • He questioned the necessity of war.
      • Emphasizing the similarity of man by writing that “we are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood.”
      • Question the idea of nationalism and the obligation one has to give one’s life for one’s country.
    • Dutch thinker Hugo Grotius (1583–1645):
      • He wrote that the right of an individual to live and exist peacefully transcends any responsibility to a government’s idea of national duty.
      • His desire for humane treatment in wartime was expressed in his On the Law of War and Peace (1625), which proposed such wartime policies as:
        • the declaration of war,
        • the honoring of treaties, and
        • humane treatment of war prisoners.
    • Comenius’s and Grotius’s antiwar sentiments were the first developments of the Enlightenment in the sense that they went against tradition and took a humanistic approach to the atrocities in the world.
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7 thoughts on “Major ideas of Enlightenment: Kant, Rousseau: Part I”

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